Hundreds of air travellers across the country were stranded for hours on Friday as about a dozen Air India flights failed to take off on time after several senior pilots called in sick protesting a government decision excluding them from the “workmen” category.
The airline’s captains and commanders participated in the “go slow” protest a day after Air India issued a notification communicating the change, effectively meaning they can no longer form a union and boycott work. HT first reported the amendment on Friday.
The incident is likely to further dent the image of the national carrier that has been losing money for years and has seen its market share plummet to about 18% with a number of private airlines taking to the Indian skies. In 2012, the government handed the company a $5.8-billion bailout package.
AI maintained only three of its nearly 300 flights were delayed, but sources said around 15 flights were affected due to non-availability of pilots.
While busy metro airports such as Delhi and Mumbai were the worst hit, passengers were stuck even at smaller airports in Nagpur, Jodhpur and Bengaluru.
The unrest came a day after the government announced that technocrat Ashwani Lohani, hailed as a turnaround specialist, would be the new chairman and managing director (CMD) of Air India for three years.
HT reported in April that the civil aviation ministry had sought an amendment to the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 to end the protection granted to pilots and aircraft engineers under prevailing labour laws that allow employees in the workmen category to go on a strike by giving a 15-day prior notice to the management.
Among domestic airlines, AI has been the worst hit when it comes to striking employees. Between 2011 and 2012, its pilots struck work four times, once for 58 days causing the national exchequer a loss of around Rs 300 crore.
“Many captains are members of AI’s only pilot union, the Indian Commercial Pilots Association, and following this notification they will have to withdraw from union activities,” said an official.
The notification released by Air India on Thursday said the labour ministry had issued a clarification regarding differentiation on categories of pilots in the airline – pilots in command (PICs) and co-pilots.
“The ministry of labour and employment has, after examination, in light of the duties and responsibilities of Pilot in Command (PIC) in AI observed that the duties and responsibilities of PIC are of managerial and administrative nature and may not fall in the definition of ‘workman’ under the Industrial Disputes Act 1947,” said the notification issued by executive director Deepa Mahajan.
Industry experts observed that the notification will have far reaching implications for the entire aviation industry and not just the state-run carrier.
“There is no justification for professionals earning Rs 5-10 lakh a month to be treated as workers,” said aviation expert Rajji Rai.